In our culture we tend to think in terms of cause and effect. This is most often exemplified in and through those of us who experience chronic illness and disabilities. For us, correctly or incorrectly tracking cause and effect can have powerful consequences. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that cause and effect thinking is the healthiest or most constructive way. Suppleness and flexibility of thought are beautiful things. One of my favourite techniques for pulling apart cause and effect thinking is to contemplate and wonder upon a quote from Zen Master Dogen,
“Without the bitterest cold that penetrates to the very bone,
how can plum blossoms send forth their fragrance all over the universe?”
Here’s why I love this quote: It sounds like a cause and effect statement to me, but it’s really not. It hits a couple of our cultural hot buttons and is perfect for wondering about our perspective and understanding:
We tend to think of time, our lives and our selves as moving constantly forward into the next evolution. We can never go back, we can only move forward. In terms of cause and effect, this means that every experience we have, and every choice we make, is at least part of the foundation for the next experience or the next choice. Realistically, many of us often feel trapped in a circular pattern we don’t much like. The point here is that, if you ask any five people who care to talk to you about it, they will likely tell you the key is to identify and break the causal patterns so that you can “move on” to more pleasant effect. Cold happens, time progresses, fragrance happens as the rational effect of cold.
Difficulty as Cause, Reward as Effect
Oh, do we ever have a fondness for couching the value of The Difficult in terms of the rewards it can yield. It’s really the only value we place on The Difficult. The value of experiencing something difficult lies in what it prepares us for, who we become. It reveals our true nature or leads us to our most authentic purpose. It is the forge in which our strength is tempered. A cold that penetrates to the very bone causes the ultimate blossoming of fragrance being released to the entire universe. Out of every difficult experience, something amazing can be created.
None of this is definitively accurate, it is not objectively true. It is simply our way. Our way of perceiving and understanding. Our way of making sense of things.
There are other ways.
Rather than seeing things in terms of cause and effect, it is possible to imagine that experiences simply naturally happen together. The cold is is not a cause to the effect of fragrance. They simply happen together as part of the plum blossom experience. They are different threads woven together as part of another pattern. The cold itself is not the effect of seasonal and climate causes. The plum blossom isn’t the effect of a causal plum tree, which is not the effect of a causal gardener, who is not the effect of causal parents or causal life conditions. These are all patterns arising into experience together, connected and interwoven to each other. It is life. The cold is life. The fragrance is life. The plum blossom is life. They co-arise into the experience of the world together in that way, because that is life.
But the question itself implies that the fragrance can’t happen without the cold. The fragrance is dependent upon the cold for its existence, right? How can that not be cause and effect?
The cold, the fragrance and the plum blossom don’t depend upon each other because of cause and effect. Rather, they depend upon each other because all of life depends upon something else – often a seemingly infinite variety of something elses. We are trained to track cause and effect, but we can un-train ourselves from that habit and open our understanding to dependency instead. Individual elements of experience are needed, not because of their capacity to yield something else, but because they are needed. Full stop. And contemplate. The cold and the fragrance and the plum blossom all depend upon each other, in order to be.
But couldn’t we say that without the cold, the fragrance wouldn’t reach its highest expression? Isn’t it obvious that the effect of a fully-realized plum blossom depends upon the causes of cold and fragrance?
Non Human-Centric Thinking
Is there another creature on this planet that rates fulfilment on a scale of failure to success? No. Is there another creature on this planet that even seriously considers fulfilment at all, let alone the degree to which it has been achieved? No. Is there another creature on this planet who would look at a plum blossom and squeeze it for meaning and metaphor? No. We are weird, weird creatures.
It’s not about us, what we think about it or what it can teach us. The plum blossom is not made up of our feelings and opinions about it. It is a thing unto itself. Legitimate and whole. And its not there for our enjoyment, fulfilment or progress. It’s there because it is life. It’s not offering itself to be used by us. Its very existence in our experience can remind us of our dependency. It calls us to tend to it. The truth is, we are life too. We are needed too. We are part of the inter-dependent web. All of life on this planet is dependent upon us for its health and survival, just as we are dependent upon all of life for ours. We can see that by how much we take in order to achieve our aims and how devastating an impact our self-interest has.
Our perception that this world exists to serve us (instead of the other way around) is, I believe, deeply entangled with the perception of cause and effect. We perceive life as a human-centric story. Our civilization, and each individual within it, is an evolving effect seeking ultimate fulfillment and actualization. If full potential is not being realized, the key to human progress always lies in addressing causes.
This question can give us a chance to wonder about these habits of perception and understanding. We have the opportunity to wonder about our tendency to value the world and everything in it in terms of what we might gain from it. Especially when it comes to elements of natural beauty. Do we even know how to contemplate what is wild and natural without consuming it and personalizing it? When was the last time you were struck by the beauty of a sunrise without considering it an experience of value to you? Without absorbing it as something that helped make your day better or because it inspires you? When was the last time a sunrise happened under the watch of a human, from our culture, and it wasn’t either dismissed as useless or consumed as valuable?
Without the bitterest cold that penetrates to the very bone, how can plum blossoms send forth their fragrance to the universe?
Something to wonder about.
ps – I do know that picture isn’t a plum blossom … but it’s the closest I could find